Juan For All
By Robert Wilonsky
On September 5, against the lowly Minnesota Twins, Juan Gonzalez broke the Texas Rangers' single-season runs-batted-in record by getting hit with a pitch while the bases were loaded. The moment occurred during the third inning of a game the Rangers would eventually win, and it passed as quickly and as quietly as it came. Not even the scoreboard would announce the accomplishment to the fans--or, more appropriately, the green sea of 20,000-plus empty seats that filled the Ballpark in Arlington. There was no curtain call; no bows were to be taken. History was made, and no one noticed.
It was not quite the way Gonzalez expected to enter the record books, not how he expected to get his 145th RBI. Then again, the Rangers' history is not required reading, unless you want to read one long story about defeat, disappointment, humiliation. It's only appropriate Gonzalez break his own 1996 season mark of 144 RBIs by getting a free pass. Drama has never been this team's strong suit.
After the game, manager Johnny Oates tells a handful of reporters gathered in his office that Gonzalez "continues to amaze me." He recalls the days when a player driving in 100 runs during an entire season was a "milestone"; but, Oates says, "those days have long gone by the wayside." The importance of the moment doesn't elude the manager, who will look for one or two highlights to recall after this season ends in a shrug, not a pennant.
And it does not elude Gonzalez, who stands at his locker after the game, wearing only gray boxer-briefs and a wide smile. So often after games, wins or losses, he will appear in the locker room for scant moments, showering and dressing quickly and then disappearing without uttering so much as a word to the media. Gonzalez does this not out of arrogance, but because he is a reluctant superstar who, after a decade in the big leagues, still has trouble uttering complete sentences in English. Better to disappear, he figures, than to stumble over the language in front of the cameras. He is too proud to look foolish, no matter how hard he tries.
But tonight, he stands and speaks until there are no more reporters left to ask him questions. Too bad, then, that there are only a handful to ask him anything--not a single TV camera is around to record the night Juan Gonzalez broke his own Rangers RBI record. Then again, perhaps it is a hollow victory to own such a mark; owning a Rangers record is a little like beating yourself to win the World Series. It's hard to take seriously a team that has seen post-season play only once in 27 years of existence; it's hard to root for a team that stands in its own way as it tries so desperately, so clumsily, to win the American League West this season.
One writer asks Gonzalez whether he thinks about winning the American League Most Valuable Player Award, which he garnered two years ago--when he first set the team's RBI record and led the Rangers to the playoffs against the New York Yankees. The Rangers were humiliated in the series against the eventual World Series champs, but Gonzalez belted five homers during the series. Better players than he have wilted beneath such pressure, but he emerged from the Yankees series a hero, posting Reggie Jackson-like numbers.
He smiles coyly when asked about the MVP nod. He insists he does not think about such accolades, that it would be meaningless if the AL West title did not accompany it. Besides, he says, it's likely he wouldn't even receive the award unless the Rangers won the division.
"It's hard to separate the numbers from the wins," he says. "You have two things: the numbers, and the team. But when you play together, you realize your goals. For example, I am having a tremendous year, but the team is having a good year too. You never know what will happen. I continue working hard for my numbers, but for a better chance, you need to win the division. It's more important for me to win the division."
Right now, it looks as though that will not happen. Going into Tuesday, the Rangers were three games behind the Anaheim Angels, looking more like a team content--almost eager--to finish second instead of first. In recent days, the Rangers have blown leads so often, you might mistake them for the 1919 Chicago White Sox. Despite outstanding performances from Will Clark (with 95 RBIs after Monday) and Ivan Rodriguez (batting .329), their failure looks almost purposeful. They have been betrayed by their once-competent bullpen; by Todd Stottlemyre, brought here in a trade involving Fernando Tatis that could forever haunt this team; by bats that seem dipped in concrete whenever runners are on base; and by an ailing Mark McLemore, who is quite literally on his last legs at second base, committing error after mortifying error.
The players may change, but this year's Texas Rangers look like every other model that preceded them. No matter how much money owner Tom Hicks sinks into the payroll, the Rangers will eventually be undone by their own history, which they can no more escape than their own skin. Even Rangers fans, among the most resilient and forgiving in any sport, have wearied of such teases and imminent disappointment. That's why they have not come to the Ballpark as they did last season; attendance will fall well short of 1997's record-setting three-million-plus mark.
Which is too bad: They have missed a remarkable season from a remarkable player, a man who has long been the league's most underrated superstar, which no doubt is tied to the fact that he plays for the league's most underachieving team. Indeed, suiting up for the Rangers is like starring in a series on the UPN.
Gonzalez's career numbers are extraordinary: Since 1992, he has hit more than 40 home runs during a season five times, including the past three; since 1991, he has driven in more than 100 runs six times; and his career batting average is, at the time of this writing, an impressive .289. Hell, Pete Rose's career batting average was just .303. Well, not just.
But baseball fans are not concerned with numbers gathered over the long haul. Oddly enough, in a game so slow-paced, so deliberate as baseball, the crowd likes its thrills immediate, intense, almost visceral. The crowd at Busch Stadium exploded on Monday, when Mark McGwire caught up to Roger Maris and history. Their celebration was unrelenting, a mixture of tears and cheers. Fans like something they can hold on to--a record-tying home-run ball, for instance, even if it lands in someone else's lap.
At the beginning of July, there was that brief moment when the national press treated Gonzalez like the second coming of Ruth. For one week, McGwire and Sammy Sosa had a little company as they raced toward hallowed ground. For a man who would rather watch the circus than stand inside the three rings, the attention was a bit overwhelming, but Gonzalez begged for it when, on July 5, he drove in four runs against the Seattle Mariners to enter the All-Star break with 101 RBIs--the second most in history at the halfway point of the season. He and Hack Wilson, who drove in 190 runs in 1930, became, for a moment, as intertwined as McGwire and Maris; Gonzalez was on pace to break a record far older and far more daunting than Maris' home-run mark.
But he didn't even come close: After Monday afternoon's win against the Twins at the Ballpark, Gonzalez has 149 RBIs, with only 19 more games left to play. After so much ruckus was made early in the season about his being set to surpass Wilson's seemingly untouchable record, anything less almost seems like a disappointment. Notice how his name is barely uttered on SportsCenter, how he has all but disappeared from the national media spotlight that has made a god of Mark McGwire.
"I had a little bit of pressure because of the 101 RBIs before the break," he says. "But in the second half, Mark [McLemore] was hurt a little bit, [Tom] Goodwin at lead-off went down a little bit, so I couldn't drive in as many runs. It's just the circumstances of the game. But I'm real happy. We have three more weeks, we're in a pennant race, and I'll just continue working hard. During this part of the season, everyone's tired, especially the bullpen. We need our second wind. All I know is, I am trying hard."
What he has accomplished this season might well be a footnote in the history books when the final out of the regular season is recorded. But consider this: Gonzalez could well finish the season with more than 162 RBIs, which would place him on a list alongside men whose names are bigger than the game itself: Babe Ruth (who drove in 163 in 1931), Lou Gehrig (165 in '34), and Joe DiMaggio (167 in '37).
Stop. Consider that again.
And that man has blossomed into a bona fide baseball star--a hero--even if the media would rather talk about Ken Griffey Jr., Albert Belle, or Mike Piazza. Gonzalez himself sometimes seems uncomfortable with the role, sometimes rounding the bases after a home run with his head down, as though he is too abashed to celebrate the moment.
"Absolutely I have a big responsibility to this team," he says, still standing at his locker in his underwear, long after the media have cleared out. "I am one of the key players here. But it's not only my team. There are 24, 25 other guys here trying hard every day. There's Will, Pudge. Hey, he [Rodriguez] has great numbers too. A lot of people say, 'Hey, it's your team.' No, no. It's everybody playing together, like a family. I don't like it when people talk about me. I am working hard for my numbers, but I'm working hard to win every game too.